Red Desert (Criterion)
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.
Antonioni is in full control and it’s not always obvious as he reconstructs the impersonal reality around them. At least until the dreary skies, the putrid parks and waterways, even the fact that every window opens up to more industrial detritus; even Giuliana’s home overlooks a shipping canal, giving her a magnificent view of the passing freighters. Which pretty much defines both why Antonioni impressed me as a filmmaker yet leaves me cold as an artist. He casts a hypnotic spell, his every frame is impeccably composed and painted (literally in the case of one particularly bleak landscape, which Antonioni has doused in gray paint for greater effect) and his imagery stripped of extraneous details, the better for his characters to stand out from the gray, like aliens in a strange landscape. But these landscape are also so exaggerated and contrived, and the performances so controlled and calculated, that I never for once believe they live in the real world, and his characters are so empty that they are almost impossible to relate to.
Mastered from the original 35mm camera negative, it’s almost flawless (with a touch of fluctuating pixels in the neutral skies) and so clean that the hard vertical scratches 65 minutes into the film—the only blemishes on the print—are jarring.
The DVD and Blu-ray feature the same excellent supplements. The commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs is informed and informative, a well organized mix of production details, observations and insights but decidedly on the scholarly side. Antonioni offers his own explanations in a 12-minute archival TV interview from 1964 and Monica Vitti discusses her personal and professional relationship with Antonioni in a 1990 interview (both in French with subtitles). Most exciting are two early Antonioni documentary shorts: his debut film Gente del Po (1947), a portrait of the hard lives of the people living on the Po River, and N.U. (1948), about the street cleaners of Rome. Both show Antonioni’s focus on placing people within their landscapes, rural and urban. Also includes booklet with a new essay and archival pieces.